Ringlets of water rippled out from Anita’s ankles, dimpled with goose bumps from the icy river and the cool breeze. Though the hairs on her legs bristled from the chill, her insides were warm under the rays of the mid-morning sun.
Chickens and roosters scratched around in the dirt, talking to each other in a boisterous ‘bah-gwaawk’. It was the only sound that broke up the silence of this rich but quiet land, aside from the swoosh of gums overhead as the wind tickled their oily leaves, and the low hum of insects calling out to each other across the bush.
It was on days like this when she wasn’t really called to action and had no chores that the loneliness set in. She would start missing something deeply; something red, something dry, something desolate on the surface yet rich with hidden secrets. A stagnant hunger burned for something buried deep within from long ago, she just couldn’t remember what it was.
She’d wedge her toes into the dirt on the banks of the river hoping to squeeze out a memory from the earth below. She’d fill her lungs with clean country air and turn her head to the sky hoping to inhale a voice or two from her past. But before she could grasp them they’d be gone like shadows that stretch out and lazily fade away once the sun has lain to rest for the day.
As usual when this strange emptiness crept in she’d fill it with stories that her guardians had offered. She’d peruse and remember beautiful bound books. Flowing thick swirls of text punctuated with bright images of faraway places, fantastical creatures, and magical happenings not of this land.
The one that she was reading right now spoke of a horse with wings that would sprout from its back at night time and take the children of its owners on magical journeys to previously undiscovered land. Anita loved this story. She longed for her own Pegasus to take her skyward and escape the vacuous depths gnawing at her.
Her guardians were kind enough. They cared for her, kept her comfortable and well fed, eased her as best they could when her spirit was low. But there was something she craved in their blood that was not there. It was like trying to find nectar in a sea sponge dried brittle by the sun.
For Anita and her guardians John and Margaret life had gone on in this docile manner for quite some years. Margaret had suffered ill health as a teenager and was devastated to find out she could not birth her own child. They were more than thrilled to take care of a baby and jumped at the chance to give Anita a new home when the opportunity arose.
She didn’t remember not knowing them. And yet somehow she did. And they definitely remembered meeting her as they spoke of it often. How their hearts melted and jumped about in their chests as soon as they laid eyes on her. She wished she could remember, feeling almost guilty she couldn’t, as they always showed so much joy when they reminisced about that moment 18 years ago.
Seeking a larger family they adopted another child. He came to be with them as an infant when Anita was seven, but weak lungs stole him away soon afterwards. The grief hung over them all in a heavy grey fog and they didn’t try again, ever.
So Anita’s time was spent alone a lot of the time, and though she knew nothing else she desperately wished to be part of something bigger. She longed for people her own age to talk to and share adventures with. To belong.
The years went on and she learnt the ways of the kind folk that had taken her in. She learnt how to work the land, how to tend the earth, harvest food when it was ready, take care of animals, slaughter a rabbit, milk a cow and help birth a calf.
She also seemed to have quite a knack for building so John taught her how to build properly when he saw her deft hands building tree houses out of sticks and twine. Before long she was creating her own rustic cubby houses nestled between trees on the edge of the foothills.
She kept herself occupied and her experience was rich. She just wished she could get passed this void that haunted her.
Then there came a day when Margaret had had some news from the west that her sister that left this world. She and John were to head over and tend to the funeral arrangements.
They wanted Anita to come but she preferred to stay. She had never met Margaret’s sister, so she didn’t feel too bad about it aside from the fact that Margaret was so sad… well she was a little bit sad; there were hundreds of vast kilometres of space between them which meant communication and connections were always a bit difficult. Still, blood was blood, and Margaret found herself mourning the idea of a big sister more than the relationship they had actually shared.
Anita promised she would be fine by herself. She actually found the idea of having the farm to herself quite exciting. She had always been lonely and yet she’d never really been entirely alone. And so Margaret and Tom gathered their things and saw she had all she needed before taking off.
Anita tended to the animals and the crops for a time, while the need in her feet to connect with red earth got stronger every day. She finally felt the time was right to explore a little and decided to venture out past the edge of the property towards the mysterious magnet that called her.
Her bare feet met rocks and branches and thistles, they met leaves and dirt dried to the point of cracking. For some hours she walked and with every step something started to grow as if the cells in her body were starting to fill up with what they had lost.
She walked until the hilly land became flat and the trees turned to scrub.
She walked until the sun lay down behind the horizon and the warm air became cool.
Finding a nook in the dense bush to set up a little camp for the evening, she curled up under the stars. The deep lullaby of cicadas and crickets kept her keen company.
That night dreams came thick and fast. Her body lay still but her restless mind wandered and raced. It saw flashes of her feet walking where the earth was red like blood, laid thick with throbbing veins of granite and bubbling mounds of basalt. An ocean of stars undulated sensuously across the southern sky. Great goannas, snakes, frilled neck lizards and kangaroos danced together upon the earth in time to her pulsing heart. As her eys found her feet she realised she was following a track of footprints deep into the desert. Her pace quickened and burst into sporadic moments of flight. Excitement turned into urgency as she longed to find the person who had etched these prints deeply into time.
The rocky masses and dense bush gave way to flat barren earth.
Anita looked up to the horizon and saw the silhouette of a man pacing slowly away from her. Her mouth called out to him in another language. She didn’t know what it was but it was musical and wonderful and rich as it fell from her lips. The words were undistinguishable she only knew she was calling for him to wait for her.
He didn’t turn around but his walk did slow and she knew he’d heard her. As if gravity had received Anita’s cry she was almost carried over the earth gliding just above its surface and landing a few metres behind the old man. It wasn’t until she landed that she heard his words. She didn’t understand them. They were in the strange same language that she had spoken. But she knew he had been waiting for her.
He slowly turned to greet her eyes and as their gaze met a startling rift ran through her body from her belly to the top of her head. A nauseating cry rose from the deep, a guttural sigh fell from her throat and met the air in deep resonance.
The old man returned met her voice with tears and a deep understated smile as he bowed his head. His eyes said something like welcome home.
And as his silent words hit her the ground trembled beneath. She immediately fell out of this landscape back into her body in the waking world and sat bolt upright.
In the thin tent her body was drenched in sweat and her face covered in tears.
Something had cracked; something had cracked deeply, inside. And she knew that she’d just hit a moment she could never turn back from.
The rest of the night was spent staring at the stars, wondering where this man was in the waking world. Anita knew she had to find him.
Upon the new day she trekked back to the house to take care of the property until her guardians returned. After the deep murmur in her belly that night out in the bush every moment seemed to stretch out forever as she waited for them to arrive so she could head off. To find the man in her dreams.
A couple of weeks later Margaret and John finally returned. Both resigned to overwhelming tiredness, they were happy to see her, but something was missing in their spirit. As they dined together Anita couldn’t tell if they were angry or just tired as an implicit unease exploded into the silence with every breath.
After dinner Margaret called Anita into the lounge room. “Anita dear we need to have a word with you.”
She seemed troubled and worn and older than Anita had remembered.
“We have some news. While we were away we were contacted by the wife of an old man who is dying. They claim to be your grandparents, and after some research I think this might be true.” Margaret held Johns hand as if needing reassurance. “Now I know this is a lot to take in although you do know we’re not your parents by birth. We don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to, but before he leaves the world he would like to see you.”
The vision of her guardians swam before her eyes as another little bit of her world fell sideways. Not in a broken way, but a coming together. As if she’d always been sideways and was suddenly upright for the first time. She couldn’t find any words, as her eyes fell to the floor in contemplation.
Margaret continued, “I’ve been given a photo of this man. Would you like to see it?”
Anita nodded. With a deep sigh Margaret pulled the photo out and placed it tentatively on Anita’s lap.
Anita met his gaze and fell into the eyes of the old man from her dream. A huge wash of air sucked down her throat in a giant ocean wave as a rich unearthly sob made its way through her trembling body.
Margaret and John quickly rushed to each side of her. ”Oh I’m sorry I didn’t know if I should say anything but they seemed insistent. It’s probably nothing just forget about it.”
Margaret moved to take the photo away but Anita kept her grip on it. “It’s ok you did the right thing. I should go and see him.”
“Are you sure?” John was calm but concerned.
“Yes this feels like the right thing to do.” She didn’t want to share her dream she thought it would sound too strange. Blood moved eagerly through her veins in a way it hadn’t before, simmering with excitement.
“Very well,” said Margaret, “as long as you’re sure we’ll support you no matter what you choose.”
“Thank you.” Anita said hugging her.
And with a full spirit she darted off to start packing.
The air was so calm it seemed to almost lift the car into the air as she took off into the countryside. Yards of cattle, crops of wheat, fields of sunflowers, began to give way to vast expanses of red earth peppered by green salt bush and low lying succulents.
A few thousands kilometres passed in a matter of days and within the week she was driving down a gravel road, lined by long bush grasses, and a few sparse apple trees struggling to make their way in the rocky soil. Breathing in the air seemed to rattle every cell in her body as if she’d suddenly had oxygen for the first time. It was rich with iron and salt,
She drove down the long driveway expecting excitement, expecting fear, expecting expectation, finding nothing but expansive ebbing warmth in waves that rose from her feet to the top of her head. Her feet stepped out from the car onto oddly familiar ground. Up ahead in the distance, the silhouette of an old man sitting on a rickety chair pondered the sunset.
She knew immediately who it was.
Her bare feet felt deep into the earth below searching for connection, and there she found it. Her eyes looked skyward with mouth open wide to inhale the rich desert air where she found the voice of her ancestors.
His spirit heard her long before his ears did. Though his back was to her his hand rose up in a little wave as he felt her approach,. Reaching him she fell at his knees. Their hands grasped each other and her eyes fell into the unconditional gaze of her grandfather.
Every cell in their bodies expanded rich with love as kin met kin for the first time in nearly two decades. Every little crevice in their spirits that had been hollow and empty and aching to be filled swam rich with the flow of their shared blood. The flutter of their hearts slowed and began to beat in time with each other, steady, in ease. And the deep gentle smiles that graced their faces said more than words ever could. They embraced, whole, complete, at peace.
And now he was finally ready to die.
And now she was finally ready to live. Really live.
To the beat.
Of her heart.
Written by Tjoni Johansen and Nonna in the Northern Rivers region on NSW.
Copyright 2017 all rights reserved
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